In the face of repeated red flags, school board members hiked the pay of a south suburban superintendent and fattened his pension to among the more lucrative in the state, the Tribune has found.
The superintendent, Alex Boyd Jr., was indicted last month on felony charges that he stole tens of thousands of dollars from West Harvey-Dixmoor District 147, a financially and academically struggling school system that he ran for more than a decade.
Boyd is accused of illegally cashing out months of sick and vacation time without board approval and racking up a five-figure credit card bill. The district's elected board secretary, Mable Chapman, also was indicted on felony charges. Prosecutors say she helped Boyd's alleged theft in exchange for meals and trips on the taxpayers' dime.
The charges stem from state and county investigations sparked back in 2005 — ones that school board members responded to by backing Boyd and making him one of the higher-paid superintendents in the region, both on the job and in retirement.
In the parade of news stories about questionable Illinois pension deals, Boyd's stands out for how board members, some of them implicated in the allegations of wasteful spending, ensured him a top pension despite the district's poor performance.
Boyd was paid about $250,000 a year in his final years on the job, placing him within the top fifth of superintendents across the Chicago region. He then retired in 2011 into a $192,000-a-year pension, the fifth-highest initial pension awarded that year for any retiring public school teacher or administrator across the state. Boyd, 65, stands to lose the pension if convicted.
The pension came not only because of high pay but also because of more than $200,000 that the cash-strapped district paid extra over the years for pension bumps.
That has at least one local activist infuriated, though even she said it is an uphill battle to change a board that rarely faces a serious challenge at the ballot box.
Dixmoor resident Wendy Casey, one of the few to run against the incumbent board after warning signs were raised in 2005, said that if voters had paid more attention to board members then, "all of them would be gone, every last one of them.
"If the parents went to the meetings and held the school board accountable, all that … wouldn't have happened."
Boyd's attorney declined to comment. Chapman's attorney said his client has done nothing wrong. Boyd and Chapman have pleaded not guilty. Chapman remains in her elected position.
Board President J.C. Smith is pastor of a sizable local church and has been on the school board for more than three decades. Smith and other board members declined to talk with the Tribune directly, instead insisting that interim Superintendent Lela Bridges field questions.
Bridges, hired in June, issued a statement Monday that did not directly address Boyd's pension or pay.
The statement said officials are "implementing strong new policies and fiscal controls to ensure that we are responsible stewards of public resources."
Teachers in the district's four schools are paid less than the state average.
The students — about 1,500 from kindergarten through eighth grade — come from some of the most challenging backgrounds in the region. Nearly all of them are considered low-income, with nearly a third of households making less than $23,000 for a family of four.
Truancy rates are nearly eight times the state average, and the district has been on an academic watch list for several years.
Boyd took the reins in late 1999.
A teacher since the mid-1970s, Boyd had started his career in western Illinois and spent several years running districts in Hazel Crest, Park Forest and Madison, Wis.
At first, Boyd's compensation at District 147 was about average compared with other Chicago-area superintendents. But it quickly grew, even as his tenure was riddled with questions of financial mismanagement.
In 2002, school board members gave Boyd an unusual perk: They spent $105,000 — equal to more than two-thirds of his base salary — to refill his pension fund. Boyd had drained his contributions years earlier.
By the 2004-05 school year, Boyd's pay leapt into the top 12 percent of superintendents in the Chicago area. That year, the school board decided to give Boyd another pension perk: $37,000 to make sure the credits he earned would mean more money in retirement.
But soon controversy hit, bringing with it investigations that eventually would lead to Boyd's indictment.
Just before school started in August 2005, a Tribune article revealed that Boyd and board members spent tens of thousands of dollars on conference trips, limo rides and meals.
That prompted Illinois education officials to audit how state and federal grants were being spent, which soon led to the state demanding repayment of $2.2 million that auditors found was either unaccounted for or misspent.
The audit had 130 findings and took issue with spending on meals and travel, noting at one point an "excessive pattern" that "appeared more of entertainment than educational" benefit.
Those findings were quickly followed by county investigators raiding the district and Boyd's Richton Park home. The investigators carted off about 60 boxes of financial records.
The turmoil came as Boyd was starting a new five-year contract with the district — inked a year earlier — that provided a range of perks.
Boyd received free health insurance, a $450-a-month car allowance and a district credit card.
He landed a $10,000-a-year extra annuity — and the district covered his yearly pension contributions, typically costing another $24,000.
Perhaps most costly of all, Boyd got to cash out unused sick and vacation time — and he was given more than 30 days of that a year.
In all, Boyd's total compensation averaged nearly a quarter of a million dollars a year.
Yet almost every year under the contract, questions about financial mismanagement were raised.
In 2007, a former business manager sued the district, saying he was fired for questioning district spending and Boyd's pay. The suit was settled, and Boyd kept working.
In 2008 and 2009, state filings show district auditors pointed out that school administrators had problems tracking how grant money was spent.
Then, in summer 2010, the board fired another business manager, this time within about two months of hiring him. James Socrates Rivers turned to authorities, court records show, and the state's attorney's office demanded financial records from the district.
Rivers sued the district that winter, saying he was fired after refusing to pay Boyd for unused sick and vacation time and taking issue with the spending of state and federal grants. In the suit, Rivers said he laid out the issues to the school board.
In a split vote, the board still fired Rivers and Boyd kept working.
The district's own financial report for the 2010-11 school year, released later, would raise questions about how grant money was tracked and point out that officials failed to keep track of costly sick and vacation time or equipment — some of the same issues raised in 2005.
Boyd was turning the corner toward retirement. That is when his pay and pension bumps really paid off — and cost the district again.
The state's Teachers' Retirement System looks at the highest four years of compensation when calculating pensions. And it counts nearly everything, including cashed-out sick and vacation time. For Boyd, that time alone added as much as $50,000 to his yearly salary.
Boyd's total compensation swung wildly from one year to the next, and two of those years ended up far exceeding a 6 percent pay hike ceiling set by lawmakers hoping to cut pension spiking — which is when a district jacks up employees' pay to reward them with a pension higher than their typical salary would reap.
Breaking the threshold brought the district a $99,785 bill from the Teachers' Retirement System after Boyd put in his papers to retire June 30, 2011.
The district finished paying off the bill this summer, just before criminal charges were detailed against Boyd.
Still, the Tribune has found, spending issues persist.
After Boyd left, the board signed up a new superintendent, then signed over a check to him for $200,000 about a year later to end their three-year contract. Both sides declined to comment on why.
Spending on travel also hasn't ended. Records show that, among other trips, school officials attended the National School Board Association gathering in Boston this year, costing the district several thousand dollars.
The conference included sessions to help educate school board members from around the country, according to a news release, on topics that included "managing schools with tight budgets" and the "best practices in school governance."